HL Deb 29 July 1988 vol 500 cc493-6

11.21 a.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will intervene to prevent the sale of County Hall for conversion to a hotel without a public inquiry.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)

No, my Lords.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I cannot really thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Will he not acknowledge that for County Hall, which is a listed Grade II building, to be changed from its use for local government into a speculative hotel development on a riverside site must call for some public comment and scrutiny? How can the Minister ignore the court judgment of last year which rejected any hotel or residential use and the current planning decision to restrict it to local government use?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it will be for the local planning authority of the London Borough of Lambeth to consider in the first instance any application that is made for a change of use or for listed building status. I know that your Lordships will appreciate that it would be wrong for me to attempt to anticipate that decision.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that what is important as regards this building is not its use but the preservation of its architectural features and its ceremonial rooms? In view of the record of the London Residuary Body in this matter, will the Secretary of State keep a close eye on the situation? It matters not whether the building is used as a hotel, provided those rooms are preserved.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, not all of the County Hall complex is listed. Certainly, the riverside block is Grade II star. Any alteration to that block will therefore need listed building consent.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, although I understand the Government's position as regards change of use, is the Minister aware that some of us feel that County Hall was a symbol of the finest local government that was ever achieved in London? I am not talking about the past few years. I am saying that County Hall was a symbol of the fine local government of the past. It was something of which we were proud. I speak very sincerely when I say that it would be a tragedy in the view of many Londoners to see that building being converted into a hotel of all things. I ask the Minister to remember that local government must not be completely ignored in that way.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, there will be the usual planning procedures to go through, when representations can be made.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, as a London ratepayer, may I say how glad I was to hear my noble friend's Answer. I think most London ratepayers will be pleased with it. Will he reject the implication of the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, that there is something derogatory in the establishment of a hotel, given the enormous contribution the hotel industry makes to our invisible balance of payments?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it would be wrong for me to comment specifically on the point of hotel use for County Hall.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that the use of a building is a part of its excellence, or otherwise? As he will no doubt agree, the planning Acts are very largely concerned with use. Therefore, is there not a point in the argument that this building was constructed for a specific purpose and should retain that purpose, just as on the other side of the Thames the Lyceum Theatre should remain a theatre as it was constructed for that purpose? I know of the aversion of the Minister's right honourable friend to public inquiries. But there may well be a case as regards both of those buildings for resorting to a public inquiry should the necessity arise. Does he agree with that?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the London Residuary Body has statutory duties. There are no grounds upon which the Government should interfere with them.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is it not a fact that the whole purpose of having planning procedures is to retain a living city? The suggestions that any current use should continue for ever as regards County Hall are quite unrealistic. Is it not also a fact that the planning suggestions for this building go much wider than just hotel use and encompass large areas which might be open to the public? It could become a very imaginative building complex.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the sale at the moment is still subject to contract. I do not know in full detail what the prospective purchasers will submit in the way of a planning application, if any. We shall have to wait, and it will be up to the London Borough of Lambeth to decide the matter.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind, following the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that the fact that the hotel industry makes an important contribution to the balance of payments does not mean that one wants to see many public buildings converted into hotels? If that is going to be the criterion, there is an even better riverside site on this side of the river.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, doubtless Westminster City Council will be receiving a planning application from the noble Lord in due course.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, will not the Minister accept that what he has just said about hotel use for County Hall is in conflict not only with the views of the London Borough of Lambeth but also with that of his own inspector? After the last public inquiry his right honourable friend the Secretary of State accepted the views of the inspector that a hotel was not suitable, and not least the judgment of Mr. Justice Stephen Brown in the High Court.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in view of the present situation, I know that the noble Lord would think it wrong for me to go any further than I have done.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the Minister aware that to transfer the Department of Social Security from the Elephant and Castle might conceivably give the present Secretary of State a little moral uplift?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think that that is a slightly different matter.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, if the Minister is resting his case on the due process of law and the planning procedures, will he bear in mind that the persistence of this Secretary of State in not accepting the outcome of public inquiries is a matter which causes much distress to those who are concerned with retaining the building for its present use? Will he bear in mind that today he has simply stonewalled on behalf of the Secretary of State who in our view is very guilty of vandalism?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I reject the charge that my right honourable friend is a vandal. I think that is totally wrong.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, speaking as one of the unsuccessful bidders, will the Minister accept that to the best of my knowledge none of the proposals for County Hall suggests turning it into a hotel? Does he not accept that the proposals envisage that a hotel would be a part of a vastly more attractive development than exists in the whole of that area at the present time and would function more to the benefit of the citizens of London than the use that was made of County Hall by its previous occupants?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord has said to be correct.